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Vocal Music Review Print

A Night At the Opera II

January 28, 2003 - Chapel Hill, NC:

UNC's Hill Hall was the scene of A Night At the Opera II , staged by Brent Wissick on Tuesday, January 28. The innovative producer of this performing artist faculty/student extravaganza had assembled from his own studio a fourteen-piece UNC Cello Choir that became the continuo that bound together various spotlighted soloists and ensembles.

The highlight of the entire show may easily have been the unique arrangement by Lynn Glassock and Brent Wissick of "Divertissement sur L'elisire" by Sebastian Lee (1805-1887), presented just before the intermission. In this work, Wissick's cello was paired extremely successfully with Glassock at the xylophone. This may well have been a once-in-a-lifetime listening experience; Glassock said it would be very difficult to transport the xylophone to perform the work elsewhere and that there is very little music available from which to build a program for cello and xylophone. As a matter of fact, said he, he had to arrange what little xylophone work that they did on the program for this evening. It was planned in response to a longstanding desire of Wissick since his own student days to experiment with this combination as he had read about concerts by Sebastian Lee and Gusikov (whose given name was not noted).

The program notes described Lee as a German who was principal cellist of the Grand Opera in Paris for 30 years in the mid-19th century. Wissick's notes explain that he was well known for his concerts with Gusikov, a performer on the "Strohfidel," an early version of the xylophone. The divertimento was a grand success inasmuch as it offered the audience not only the charming interpretations of the individual virtuoso performers but also a definite sense of not wanting it to end, or wishing to hear more. If the Gusikov "Strohfidel" program music mentioned in program notes can be located and reworked for this team, recording studios will be bidding for the rights. Not to demean its worth in the academic community, it seems to me it would become as popular among the general public as the pan pipes recordings. This in turn would lead previously unknowledgeable listeners to other combinations with cello in the important process known as audience-building.

Some of the combinations to which they might be led could be drawn from the rest of A Night At the Opera II , which was inspired by the fact that the cello has "always had an important place in the opera pit." Following the setting of the scene by Cello Choir, bass and timpani with the Andante from the Overture to Rossini's Guillaume Tell , four male opera singers presented a Recitatif et Choral from Les Huguenots . Timothy Sparks and Stafford Wing, tenors, together with baritone soloists Harris Ipock and Mikey Truzy, displayed excellent faculty-student rapport in an even-quality presentation that culminated in the theme known as Ein feste Burg . Alas, the next work for the Cello Choir was none other than Ein feste Burg , harmonized by J. S. Bach. The ensemble was true and pleasing, and the delicious tone was incredibly rich. What more can one say about such a grand old chestnut other than it was a delight to hear it from this unique fourteen-member cello choir? Wissick sat in a traditional oak teacher's chair, his back to the audience. His bow alternately conducted the ensemble, seated to his right, or made splendid contact with his own cello.

Terry Rhodes, soprano, and Stafford Wing, tenor, who had been featured in A Night At the Opera I , appeared this time together with Jonathan Rohr, baritone. Their group included the recitativo "Zitto, lascia ch'io senta!" and the aria "Vedrai, carino" from Mozart's Don Giovanni . The only disappointment of the evening was that A Night at the Opera II included only two opportunities for these artists to sing in the same ensemble. Wing was in exceptionally fine voice for this program and Terry Rhodes always complements her faculty colleague beautifully.

John Brown, an impressive presence at the double bass, afforded another showcase situation for principal cellist Wissick in the evening's second work by Rossini. Their duo performance of the Allegro from Duetto appeared flawless but slowed the pace of the programming. It could have been saved for another time and given its own focus. Yet it acted as a bridge.

Energy flowed quickly back to the audience from the voice of Timothy Sparks in the aria "Una furtiva lagrima" from L'elisir d'amore by Donizetti. Sparks demonstrated great strength and control, exciting the audience with his fortissimo.

Selections Im Charakter eines Recitativ from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 opened the second part of the program, performed by the Cello Choir with bassists Martin Stam and Peter Kimosh joining Brown. Franz Liszt's piano arrangement was brilliantly performed by Tonu Kalam. Once again, Wissick sat facing the Choir and conducted or played as required. It was an interesting spectacle to watch as well as to hear the fourteen cellos in action.

Comic relief ensued with Beethoven's Twelve Variations on "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" from Mozart's The Magic Flute . It was light and upbeat and placed just right in the course of events. Then followed more principal cellist showcasing, all exquisitely performed. Brown and Wissick presented "Souvenirs de Bellini" by Julius Goltermann (1825-76), a melodious score that gave the players an opportunity to demonstrate virtuosity coupled with an exercise in perpetual motion. "Variations on a Theme of Rossini" by Adrian Servais (1807-66) offered a passionate cello melody supported by Kalam's steady piano. Goltermann was overlooked in the delightful prose program notes by Professor Wissick, but Adrian Servais was described as, in some ways, the "Paganini" of the cello in the 19th century.

The following paragraph from the notes expresses the spirit of the evening's program: "A Belgian by birth, (Servais) toured Europe with his magnificent Strad cello, frequently performing his own fantasias on opera tunes. A survey of his publications shows that most were opera based. He knew what his public would recognize in the way that we recognize jazz or pop standards. A good tune works when sung by a voice or by that most vocal of instruments, the cello."

The Finale brought vocal pedagogues Wing and Rhodes back together with students Rohr, Brian Parks and Casey Molino-Dunn, baritones. The Cello Choir carried the day and the uproarious applause belied the paucity of the audience which was, in a word, disgraceful for the amount of creativity and effort that went into the success of this production. What ever happened to required concerts for Music Department students? Many were there, but the department cannot have dwindled to that extent.